Don’t punish yourself for failure: I know many people say this, and it’s certainly easier said than done, but failure is entirely natural and is a stepping-stone to success. Failure is honestly a test to see whether you will continue to follow the path of resilience or not. It’s paramount that you learn from your mistakes and keep going afterward! I have encountered so many failures in my life, and I know for a fact that there will be so many more. I still have so much more to learn, mistakes to make, and experiences to experience. Just remember to learn from those mistakes and tell yourself that it will be okay!
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suraj Kulkarni.
Eighteen-year-old Suraj Kulkarni was named one of America’s Top 10 Youth Volunteers 2021 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, the largest youth volunteer awards program for over 26 years, which then inspired this year’s Prudential Emerging Visionaries program (entry deadline November 4) for young people, ages 14–18, who “bring fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to pressing financial and societal challenges in their communities.” Suraj is the founder, CEO, and creative director at Only Being You, a 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering minority voices by sharing stories and providing resources across the globe. The organization, which was created in light of the Black Lives Matter movement to create a space for minority students to feel welcomed, has received a large amount of support within just one year. Suraj is currently a first-year student at UCLA.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Of course! Thank you so much for having me. My name is Suraj Kulkarni; I am originally from Corvallis, Oregon and am currently a first-year student at UCLA studying Psychobiology. I am also the founder and creative director at Only Being You, a nonprofit organization that I started to create a platform for all minority students to express themselves without fear or adherence to stereotypes. I created Only Being You in light of both the Black Lives Matter movement and my own experiences with microaggressions and discrimination.
Especially today in the current status quo, the importance of writing and discussions truly is undervalued; in order to create a platform that fosters engagement among a wide variety of students globally through written pieces and discussions surrounding a wide variety of topics, I launched Only Being You with four of my other friends who are thoroughly interested in social justice reform.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
For sure! Honestly, one of the most interesting stories from my journey with Only Being You probably comes from working with my other members to expand the organization. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tricky for new nonprofits to expand their reach primarily because many established organizations are somewhat hesitant to partner or collaborate with smaller organizations. When we initially started, many social justice-related organizations were reluctant to work with us; in fact, three organizations themselves directly said, “We do not want to work with you” because we had not established ourselves.
However, I think that this difficulty was a blessing in disguise; it forced us to keep reaching out to more organizations and collaborate with them on fundraisers and outreach events. I guess the “take away” that I learned from that experience is that running an organization, especially a nonprofit, requires tremendous commitment; there’s so much more to do, but if you have the passion and persistence to keep pushing through regardless of the obstacles, you will reach your goal.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our company stand out is the passion that ALL of our members have towards social justice in terms of human rights issues. Our members are always ready to collaborate in any way possible and continue to have many tough conversations pertaining to a wide variety of topics.
This question actually brings me back to when the entire Only Being You team worked on a jewelry fundraiser to raise funds for underprivileged communities in Yemen in light of the Yemen humanitarian crisis. We partnered up with Girls Inc. for Yemen, a nonprofit jewelry organization, to create a Christmas fundraiser from December 2020 to January 2021, where we sold Only Being You-themed necklaces, bracelets, and earrings! Several of our ambassadors collaborated on creating the designs and working out the other logistics. Each and every person from Only Being You was incredibly dedicated to this mission, and I really think that dedication makes us unique.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Definitely! There are honestly so many people who have helped me in a variety of ways to get me to where I am today. I would like to thank Prudential Financial for spotlighting the work that I’ve done to combat discrimination and bullying, and for providing national recognition and financial awards that helped further my efforts.
I’d also like to thank my high school counselor from Corvallis High School, Ms. Garcia, for not only helping me learn more about my own passions and interests but also develop more self-confidence and self-esteem. I was bullied quite a bit when I was in middle school and entered high school feeling out of place; having conversations about my own experiences with Ms. Garcia helped me feel much more comfortable authentically expressing myself. As I became somewhat confident with expressing my own feelings, I became more involved in social justice movements and anti-bullying campaigns. Sometimes all you need is a person who will be supportive in times of hardship, and I am so grateful to have had her as my counselor throughout my high school years. In all honesty, if it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure that I would have developed enough confidence to advocate for what I believe in or even start Only Being You.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Of course! This is such a great question. Resilience is truly about being able to bounce back after facing a challenge and is all about persistence. However, it’s important to note that resilience doesn’t have to fit into a specific box; people can show resilience in all aspects of their lives, from work and daily tasks to family life and personal situations.
In terms of shared characteristics and traits among resilient people, there is no limit. Yet most resilient people definitely understand the importance of accountability, have a sense of purpose and motivation, and think empathetically about their environment and the people they might be impacting. Optimism is also an essential trait to have, but it’s always important to make sure that people are somewhat realistic as well.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It’s very true that courage is often likened to resilience. In my opinion, courage and resilience are definitely similar and have several common characteristics — they both require intense perseverance, optimism, and motivation. However, I feel as though resilience encompasses much more than the pure definition of courage. Resilience applies in several contexts, not just those in which fear is involved. Furthermore, resilience is more long-term in that it consists of recovering and bouncing back from difficult situations.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Without a doubt, my mother. As a first-generation immigrant from India who moved to the US at 15, she exhibited resilience in so many ways. From completing high school in the US, while not knowing how to fluently speak English, to taking care of her family members when there was no stable source of income, she kept pushing through and bouncing back in every single aspect of her life.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
It’s actually quite interesting because this has happened several times. Three months before I officially launched Only Being You’s blog, I reached out to one of my friends to ask them if they would be interested in writing an article about their own experiences as part of both POC and LGBTQIA+ communities. I also expressed my thoughts and ideas about Only Being You and how the organization would develop. However, the only comment I received from them was, “You’re not capable enough to pull this off; all you can do is just watch others create initiatives.”
While I certainly was hurt by my friend’s comment, I decided to convert the emotions that I had at the time into a driving force and passion for expanding Only Being You. When I look back at where we started to where the organization is today, I am glad that I used my passion to the fullest extent. I hope that I will be able to continue doing so and keep expanding Only Being You to provide a platform for as many students as possible.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I can share that story! Being bullied had a tremendous impact on my self-esteem and mental health and is something that I would describe as one of my most significant setbacks. I wasn’t even sure about how I could develop enough confidence to do what I wanted to do or feel good about myself. Yet, after a month of being a freshman in high school, I decided to join my school’s Speech and Debate team to be part of an inclusive community that promoted self-confidence and voicing opinions. As I spent more time with this community, I grew together with them.
Eventually, my ability to express myself freely grew immensely. I became involved in most, if not all, leadership positions dedicated to social justice or community service. Being part of the debate community encouraged me to become more confident with my own identity, and I soon enough became inspired to do the same for others.
Overcoming my struggles with bullying was extremely tough, but I’m super grateful that I finally discovered my true self: the Suraj that embraced his individuality instead of suppressing it.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
As an Indian American who identifies as queer, growing up with two intersecting identities has contributed to building my resiliency. I’m not sure if there are any specific stories relating to either of these identities; it’s more so about the impact that the buildup of microaggressions can have on the psyche. I come from a relatively modern family that’s quite accepting, but at the same time, there still are traditional elements to my family that make it more challenging in terms of acceptance.
Half of my family, which settled down in the United States, is much more modern than the other half of my family in India. As a result, there is a pretty sizable cultural difference between both sides of my family, and I feel as though navigating around those differences has directly contributed to building my resiliency.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I love this question. Resilience is definitely like a muscle that can be strengthened and requires constant strengthening to become more effective. In my opinion, these are the five steps that someone can take to become more resilient:
1. Understand more about your goals: Resilience truly requires a deep understanding of what you want to achieve. Without a deep understanding, achieving your goals will be a lot more difficult as it will be much more likely for you to run into obstacles along the way. For example, when I started planning Only Being You, I tried to understand every single detail about how the organization would function in almost every aspect. Without this understanding, I would be pretty lost.
2. Learn how your body reacts to situations and find ways to care for your body: All of us are humans, and we must take care of our body in every single aspect! Do what makes you happy and gives you a source of energy, whether that’s dancing, talking to your grandparents, playing Scrabble or Monopoly, or having Coffee (or Boba!) Over the past few months, I have started concentrating so much more on myself, and I feel so much more energized and focused on everything I need to accomplish.
3. Dream Big: DREAM BIG! It’s so important to dream those big dreams, even if those around you believe that you won’t achieve those dreams. Of course, make sure that those dreams are somewhat grounded in reality, but if you want to do something but everyone around you feels as though you won’t be able to do it, do it and prove them wrong! And don’t do it for them; do it for yourself. So many of the dreams I have tend to be discounted by many people around me, but that doesn’t mean that I have stopped trying to achieve those goals.
4. Motivate yourself: On your path to resilience, you WILL encounter obstacles (that’s the whole point about being resilient)! It’s essential to keep your motivation high during these difficult moments. Find what works for you and keep doing that to continue to have the energy and passion for what you love. For me, I tend to reward myself with Boba or an episode of Grey’s Anatomy if I accomplish a challenging task (it can be anything but make sure you keep going!)
5. Don’t punish yourself for failure: I know many people say this, and it’s certainly easier said than done, but failure is entirely natural and is a stepping-stone to success. Failure is honestly a test to see whether you will continue to follow the path of resilience or not. It’s paramount that you learn from your mistakes and keep going afterward! I have encountered so many failures in my life, and I know for a fact that there will be so many more. I still have so much more to learn, mistakes to make, and experiences to experience. Just remember to learn from those mistakes and tell yourself that it will be okay!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Definitely an “acceptance and individuality” movement. It’s certainly true that there have been several human rights movements focused on the acceptance of marginalized communities, but among most movements, there is a lack of emphasis on appreciating individuality. Most movements focused on valuing someone’s uniqueness are limited to only a specific characteristic; however, an “acceptance and individuality” movement would allow every one of us to appreciate our differences and bring the most amount of good to the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, intolerance is quite present in the status quo; a movement like this would shift the mindset for many and allow ALL of us to be part of a more accepting and caring society.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
If I were to have a private breakfast or lunch with someone, that person would probably be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez! I honestly love everything about AOC — her passion for social justice reform and human rights issues, her down-to-earth personality, and of course, how fearless she is when it comes to fighting for what she believes in. I hope I can meet her one day.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
To follow my work online, you can visit Only Being You’s official website at onlybeingyou.org! You can also connect with me on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/suraj-kulkarni-7b7841149.
In addition, if anyone reading this is a change-maker, ages 14–8, with an innovative solution to financial or social issues in your community, the deadline for Prudential Emerging Visionaries is November 4th. Top winners receive up to 15,000 dollars! Apply today at prudential.com/emergingvisionaries.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you so much for having me!